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Boston Marathon bombing: How investigators are putting the pieces together
Monday’s double bombing at the finish line of the prestigious Boston Marathon horrified a proud city, a nation and the world. In a poignant irony, the last mile of the 26.2-mile course honoured the victims of the recent shooting in Newtown, Conn., where 26 people died, mostly young children.
In the hours following the bombings, speculation was rife about who might have perpetrated such a horrific act of terrorism and why. Many are jumping to conclusions about their favourite object of fear and loathing.
After the Oklahoma City bombing in 1995, whose anniversary takes place this Friday, people assumed the perpetrators were Muslim extremists, recalling the first bombing of the World Trade Center in New York City two years earlier. The bomber turned out to be Timothy McVeigh, an all-American white man and right-wing fanatic, taking revenge on the U.S. government on the anniversary (also this Friday) of the final assault on the Branch Davidians in Waco, Tex.
There are many kinds of terrorists, but they fall into three main categories, succinctly captured in the title of a classic book by psychiatrist Frederick Hacker: Criminals, Crusaders, Crazies.
It is unlikely that this is a criminal attack related to extortion, for example, since there was no prior threat either to the Boston Marathon or to the city of Boston. It could be ideologically motivated, since both Islamist and right-wing extremists have shown a willingness to kill in the name of their beliefs. It could be the work of a lone, disgruntled person bent on wreaking havoc on a city, perhaps in revenge for losing a job, or the Marathon, perhaps to show that guns are not necessary to kill people or for some perceived slight by organizers.
In the very early stages of a surprise attack, the three most important elements that can help determine the who and why questions are timing, target and mode of attack. Many have noted that Monday was Patriots’ Day in Massachusetts, and have inferred a right-wing motive. Boston history resonates with revolution against tyranny, the Boston Tea Party tax revolt, and other favourite themes of the right. The April 19 anniversary of the Oklahoma City bombing and the Waco assault also reinforce this idea.
The target was a public event, a sporting event. Memories of Munich 1976 and Atlanta 1996 come to mind, where the Olympic Games were a target. In Munich, however, the real target was Israel and its athletes, while in Atlanta, a bomb was placed at a public concert by anti-abortion activist Eric Rudolph to give the U.S. a black eye on the world stage.
Targeting a marathon race is new and could suggest a shift in tactics or simply be a target of opportunity. Since 1976, Olympic Games are “target-hardened,” with massive security that becomes more and more sophisticated with each passing year. In comparison, marathons are “softer” targets. This displacement phenomenon from hard to soft targets is well-known.
The crude nature of the bombs, made out of six-litre pressure cookers stuffed with shards of metals, ball bearings and nails, suggests that these devices were homemade. This could indicate to investigators that a professional terrorist group was not likely involved.
The explosive devices were placed in black duffle bags and left on the ground, where they caused catastrophic damage to lower limbs and extremities. This suggests that the intent was to hurt or kill a lot of people. Devastating bombings in public places, especially ones that are never claimed, was typical of right-wing groups in the 1970s and early 1980s, particularly in Italy, whose aim was destabilization and maximized terror rather than a specific political message. The August 1980 bombing of the Bologna central rail station, which killed 85 and wounded hundreds, is a notorious example.
On Tuesday, a circuit board that likely acted as a detonator was found near the site of Monday’s blasts. This could mean that the explosions were remotely detonated. In the 2005 Madrid subway bombings, explosives were deposited in knapsacks and left in various subway cars. They were detonated later by cellphones. This is why cellphone towers in Boston were shut down in the immediate aftermath of the attack.
The Boston investigation is still ongoing, and investigators are no doubt being inundated with information from witnesses, their cellphone cameras, surveillance cameras and material along a 12-block crime scene.
After the 2011 Vancouver Stanley Cup riot, police received massive amounts of photo and video material posted by participants and onlookers on social media such as YouTube and Facebook. They were overwhelmed by the volume of evidence, which contributed to the slowness of the investigation. The community response was unprecedented and led to what some social media experts have termed “crowd-sourced policing.”
In this new mediatized environment, authorities are facing a huge challenge separating rumour from fact, and false leads from valuable information. Community support is essential, but we must all be patient while the case is investigated.
Ronald Crelinsten is adjunct professor at Royal Roads University in Victoria, Senior Researcher in the Canadian Research Network on Terrorism, Security and Society, and the author of Counterterrorism.